As I roll into my last month in the Ravine after a bunch of years I have been reflecting about many things I have seen on Mount Washington over time. This mountain’s landscape, and all of you collectively, have been with me since I was very young and therefore have influenced who I have become. As I move on to other endeavors in life I have thought a lot about my role here and the history that has unfolded.
Snow Ranger work is very diverse. One minute you’re carrying some 2×4’s, painting, trying to fix a generator and then the next checking snow conditions, running a major search for a missing climber involving many teams, being lowered into a crevasse, or notifying families of tragedy. Sometimes, as in the last few years, long periods of time may elapse between major accidents which requires us to remain vigilant and not be lulled to believe accidents don’t happen anymore, because they certainly do. But why have accidents gone down? Are visitors more skilled? Smarter? More risk savvy? …you know…. I’m not sure, but I have some thoughts that all collectively may start to get to the answer that may interest you.
About 20 years ago we moved to the net with Tuckerman.org versus faxing our typed avalanche advisories around. This began an era how we all get information…at home “online” rather than going anyway and figuring it all out once we get somewhere. When the vast majority of people started having internet access this really made a noticeable difference. When people stay at home because the web said there was elevated avalanche danger, or the Ravine was going to be a hockey ring pitched at 45 degrees, many more people decided to do something else. This is quite different compared to arriving with 4 of your friends at Pinkham Notch with no prior information which was pretty typical 25 years ago. So what happened when it was bullet proof or High avalanche danger? Well 50% went to do something else like ski at Wildcat, 30% would come up and be a bit more conservative, and 20% would do what they had their heart set on when they pulled out of their driveway. This led to accidents- when a small amount of individuals enter during the highest hazards. We found when people are already here they’re “going to see what it’s like” and then when they do see, they can’t turn around…they have to give it a go. The internet delivered safety information to give people choices before leaving home.
At about this time we went from a routine of spreading out on weekends with our Volunteer ski patrol and passing out good information, to doing it more intensively! We began following a particular method of briefing the staff and giving out assignments to assure as many people as possible knew several points of critical information. The strategy was if we can keep more people away from the worst hazards of the day we have gained ground to eliminate accidents.
Then 9/11 in 2001 occurred which we believe was a major factor in very low visitation that season (2001-2002). The following spring in 2002-2003 we saw rain almost every weekend. These two years began a decline in spring use that we can’t explain well, but think it has something to do with broken cycles in human routine. Although they still loved coming to the mountains they also started creating new spring rituals which fits with our culture of doing many more hobbies and sports generally than our parents may have.
This was coupled with people getting after colder snow/powder with their new AT/Tele/Splitboard set ups. We began seeing more and more skinning up to Hermit Lake rather than carrying skis up. In order to skin you need snow and snow melts from Pinkham earlier than 20+ years ago. So visitors started breaking March visitation records while May fell through the floor making March the new May. Because of this, we have lower use when falling ice is highest and the crevasses are largest. However we have more human avalanche close call involvements than we ever have because use is rising in the more avalanche prone months. Eventually I would expect our avalanche accidents to increase.
Then there’s the issue of climate change. How will this really play out up here? Hard to say, but I would generally expect what all the climate pundits predict. More extreme swings, heavy snow and yes also more heavy rain as warmer air can carry more moisture. And therefore winter coverage starting later and yes, ending earlier. Maybe February will be the new April.
So to get to the query I started with…why are accident rates lower? Generally in my opinion it’s the combination of climate changing human patterns, staff talking to people about hazards in the field, searching for different experiences (ie. skinning for powder rather than carrying skis for the icefall party at Lunch Rocks), and the internet giving information and options here at the Avalanche Center, other ski forums, and certain weather sites like our friends at the summit Observatory.
Why do I say all this? Well I wanted to tie some history to what I think will be a quiet weekend due to a poor winter (climate) having people pursuing other things this spring, some hard surface conditions due to cold temperatures following the rain, and you using our website for info perhaps leading you to do something else. I also wanted to say that by and large you have been very receptive to our hazard and risk information. Ultimately, accidents are falling because you are using data and making decisions keeping you away from undo risk. Mountain pursuits involve risk, but they are also there tomorrow, and you have made choices to come when risk is lower.
At face value Snow Ranger work is most rewarding when you know that your actions made a big difference for someone, such as lifesaving procedures. The challenging rewards to notice are the successes made because information made someone think differently and decide to avoid the terrain. These far out-number rescues, but have made more impact on our mountain community at large. Thanks for following all our information over the years and giving it some thought…now for the weekend.
- THE INFERNO. Yes the Inferno will occur. Based on conditions there may still be alterations in the morning, but currently a unique double loop foreshortened course down low has been established to dramatically reduce risk. More to come tomorrow.
- COLD Our thin snowpack was hit by 2” of rain at Hermit Lake and a bit less on the summit over the past 24 hours. This has been followed by a scant amount of snow and a dropping temperature. Tomorrow morning the temperature will start cold at about 5F, rise to the teens, and then start falling again to about 0F Saturday night. See the details at https://www.mountwashington.org/experience-the-weather/higher-summit-forecast.aspx Hypothermia for “spring” visitors could be an issue. Needless to say there won’t be many sunbathers this weekend. Bring winter clothing.
- MACH 1 FALLS Cold ambient air will not only make you shudder it will also make the rain saturated snow very very hard. I know you just got those edges tuned up and I can’t deny that they are better than they were before for the ice, but think through the potential and consequences for long unplanned falls. Expect self-arresting with your ice ax and whippet self-arrest poles to be nearly impossible after 0.5 seconds. Rocks are hard generally, but are very hard when on the unexpected luge run at the speed of sound. As you plan your travel, constantly think about if you fall what will happen. Without an Ice ax, real crampons, and the experience to use them well, I would refrain from ascending anything steep because safe descent will not be likely.
- CREVASSES/HOLES Some holes on the right side of the Ravine near the Lip and way down under the Lip near Lunch rocks are deep enough that ultimate tragedy is likely if they are fallen into. Ask us about the holes and how to avoid them.
- ICY HIKING TRAIL The Tuckerman Ravine trail below Hermit Lake from Pinkham has record breaking ice coverage on it. Today ascending wasn’t extremely bad because it was wet and warm, but the dropping temperature will make it treacherous tomorrow, particularly going down. In our Patrol briefing tomorrow morning we will discuss how we will effectively respond to accidents on the trail because they are quite likely.
- SKI TRAIL The Ski Trail is still open a third of the way, but expect water ice! Please cross over and walk to Pinkham on the hiking trail.